Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Smothered by respect

Found Art. Jasper National Park, August 2010

Face-book, Twitter, Linked-In, Instagram, etc., are doing some really awful and some really wonderful things for our collective consciousness. Providing a forum for many who are too timid to engage literally in the charged conversations of the day, they potentially give anyone the feeling of being included, if only through putting together a sentence or two and clicking on “post.” Being noticed, after all, is one of our basic needs; so easy to take a cute picture of my cute dog (or butterfly) and actually publish it on line where friends see it and “like” it and some even consider it worthy of being “shared” with all their friends. 

I call that a wonderful thing, even letting alone the ease with which staying in touch has become more immediate and deeper for those who choose to use social media to that end. Even letting alone the ease with which urgent news can be communicated to many, many people almost instantly. Even letting alone the fact that using social media is far more interactive and engaging than watching television, for instance, or reading a newspaper, magazine or book.

But all this wonderful stuff comes arm in arm with the revelation of some pretty awful characteristics of turbulent humanity. Seething rage now has an easy, unregulated outlet, as does the most nauseating fawning.

Those who claim “venting” is good for the soul and lessens the likelihood of physical violence might have a point; but those who say that habitual angry outbursts build on each other and raise the likelihood of eventual violence may also have a valid point.

Yet ventilating, when it’s confined to repetitively self-vindicating messages, can also be self-limiting. And misused in this way (which is all too common) it can link to prematurely, and self-defeatingly, claiming “victimhood” when what’s really called for is actively behaving in ways that could potentially rectify a situation. As such, it can become little more than an excuse for not acting to resolve a problem or confront an issue that requires confrontation.” (Leon F. Seltzer, PhD in Psychology Today, see

The social media phenomenon has the power to teach us important lessons about ourselves. Because what was previously private can now be scrutinized without our knowledge, we possess the means for surreptitious break-and-enter into anyone’s underwear drawer and medicine cabinet, not to mention anyone's habits and preferences. The use of hacked material that would normally be private opens the door to targeted persuasion at the most benign end of the spectrum (as in advertising) to blackmail and political influencing of voters at the extreme, other end. We’ve already seen disturbing signs of the latter in the Muller investigation.

This could teach us something important both about our vulnerability to greasy charlatans and to temptation where power and money are at stake. 

"They won’t be gunned down in the streets but they just might find themselves smothered by respect, good will, empathy, courtesy and common sense."

49,800,000 people worldwide have chosen to have Donald J. Trump’s tweets open on their computers or smart phones on a regular basis. The web log you’re reading right now is generally read by somewhere between 125 and 175 people. The world’s population is estimated to be 7,600,000,000. That means that 7,550,200,000 don’t see Trump tweets or that 7,599,999,850 will not read this post.

What’s my point? The volume of people who are engaged in whatever dominates a given news and social media cycle today is a marble compared to the basketball of people living ordinary, nine-to-five, non-politically partisan, unterrorist, family and community lives. For every person screaming and cursing at other people screaming and cursing at them, there must be millions quietly doing their best to make the world a bit better.

When the quiet, thoughtful people finally decide to unite and gather in person or on social media, or both, the crackpot fringes—left and right—of our populations might as well kiss their rage goodbye.

They won’t be gunned down in the streets but they just might find themselves smothered by respect, good will, empathy, courtesy and common sense.

Hasten the day!

Saturday, February 10, 2018

The Colton Boushie Murder

Colton Boushie of the Red Pheasant Reserve died of a gunshot wound to the head, a gun a jury decided had discharged accidentally. Gerald Stanley was holding the gun; the presence of drunk teens invading his farm would logically have aroused his anger and he was probably right in saying that under the circumstances, he wasn’t thinking straight and may have had no intention of killing anyone when he got out and loaded the handgun. Perhaps his overriding impulse was simply to protect his wife, son and his property from danger. I could understand that. 

Like most people who followed this story, I can’t possibly know exactly what the teenagers’ or Gerald Stanley’s motivations were, theirs in invading Stanley’s farm property, his in taking out and loading the gun and pointing it at Colton Boushie’s head. Too drunk to remember perfectly, the teenagers’ testimony could hardly be relied on to recreate the tragic chain of events objectively. The Stanley family would obviously have super-strong motivation to frame the events in a manner that would lead to the result that finally obtained, and so their testimony is equally suspect. 

There are plenty of people who purport to know what went down, but elevating what I think and stating it as fact isn’t helpful. What is knowable is the degree to which tensions have arisen in many times and many places between indigenous and settler neighbours. What is also knowable is that a handgun is a lethal weapon, and as a spoon is primarily made for ladling food, a handgun is manufactured for the purpose of taking life. What is further knowable is that settler/indigenous conflict is the product of a history and that prejudice and stereotyping go back to early settlement, residential schools, treaty failures and the form of apartheid we came to call the reserve system.

In a way, Colton Boushie was murdered in 1492 when Columbus stepped off the Santa Maria and the colonial theft of the Americas was set in motion. In a way, Colton Boushie was murdered by the policy geared to clearing land for settlement by making treaties and then failing to fulfill the conditions agreed to. In a way, Colton Boushie was murdered by the many, many conversations about “useless, thieving Indians” carried on over settler fences and across tables in coffee shops in settler towns for years now. 

It’s something most of us never experience: that look in a stranger’s or neighbour’s eye when you meet and their look signals so clearly that you are despised for who you are, even if you’re not known. How much those looks—over and over again—contributed to the behaviour of the teenagers in the car with Colton Boushie that night can’t be measured by me. How much the community history of animosity and suspicion contributed to Gerald Stanley’s loading a handgun and firing it can’t be known by me either.

I’ve lived on a reserve racked by poverty, I’ve paid attention to the working of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, I’ve heard a stream of news on the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls inquiry and like you, the unbelievable statistics regarding suicide on reserves have appalled me. We have neighbours whose despair and disappointment is so deep that many can’t see any possibility of a better life.

That should spur us to action, if for no other reason than that the prevention of tragic events like Colton Boushie’s death is far, far better for all of us than the fruitless debating of who’s to blame, and court cases that resolve nothing. If I don’t care enough to pay attention, to make my voice heard on the side of reconciliation, then I’m as much to blame, probably, as . . . well, as Gerald Stanley?

Just sayin’.

God forgive us all . . . we apparently don’t know what the hell we’re doing!

Friday, January 26, 2018

What's your "core mandate?"

Mennonite Heritage Museum
“Both the job and my organization’s core mandate respect the individual human rights in Canada, including the values underlying the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as well as other rights. These include reproductive rights and the right to be free from discrimination on the basis of sex, religion, race, national or ethnic origin, colour, mental or physical disability or sexual orientation, or gender identity or expression,” . . .. (Emphasis mine.)

The Canada Summer Jobs Application includes four “attestations,” the signing of which is required in order to qualify under the guidelines set out for organizations to receive taxpayer support in hiring students for the summer. The above is one of them. I’ve underlined the words that have offended pro-life groups particularly and parts of the population generally, thereby enabling news gatherers to milk yet another topic of marginal interest to the majority of people, most of whom will never see a Canada Summer Jobs Application.

First off, I manage the Mennonite Heritage Museum which hires a student through the government summer employment program. And, yes, I signed the attestation because our organization’s mandate and activities include nothing about reproductive rights and our student is not expected to promote any view whatsoever on the subject. In fact, if our student was using his/her contacts to hand out pro-life or pro-choice pamphlets, he/she could expect to be released. That would be no different from our student employee discriminating in his/her hosting of visitors on any of the other items in the third point of the attestation quoted above.

Most absurd in the protests is the complaint that the government is telling us with this attestation requirement what we should or should not believe. Nonsense. Signing the attestation binds me to nothing, compromises nothing regarding my personal faith; it simply requires that on matters of human rights and current Canadian law, I won’t count on taxpayers’ money to fund the propagation of my views. If I or my organization wish to take on a mandate that, for instance, includes the promotion of a pro-choice or pro-life “belief,” the option of paying a student out of our own funds is clearly there.

I think we’d all take exception to a religious organization’s using taxpayer funds to proselytize in the streets. Ruling this out is not a matter of belief or freedom; the issue is what public funds will or will not support. In Canada today, the freedom to express our faith and act on it is not infringed as it is in much of the world. This freedom needs protection and the false slant being put on this one issue is not helping.

The government can justifiably be criticized for singling out “reproductive rights” in a way that makes one wonder why this one and not other controversial beliefs and opinions are listed. But that’s probably a communication failure more than anything; the current federal government has stumbled over this brick before. Granted, the detailed policing of student employees and their activities is an impossibility given the resources assigned to this program so the attestations may be seen as a legitimate means toward requiring organizations to police themselves.

The Trudeau government has increased the number of student employment places considerably and my experience with the program has been more than positive. The Mennonite Heritage Museum has been able to provide a young man with invaluable experience and learning, probably with less public money than a classroom can offer. The provision of youth summer employment demands applause; protecting it from abuse is a laudable goal.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Trigger wasn't just a horse!

Frenchman River near Val Marie, Saskatchewan - Grasslands country
"Donald Trump (is/isn’t) a racist."

Grammatically speaking, racist in this sentence is a predicate adjective, an adjective placed in the predicating part of the sentence to modify (clarify, expand on) the sentence subject. It’s structure is the same as in the sentences, “Trigger is a horse,” or “King David was a bigamist.”

But most of us yawn at grammar niceties, so let’s simply say that using this sentence structure signals something that may not be intended, that may be harmful, and in a courtroom (with a judge who paid attention when he sat in English class in high school) might even be ruled to be slanderous or libelous. To say that someone is a racist, a bigamist, a procrastinator . . . or a horse, invites the inference that that adjective nails down the subject’s essential characteristic. It’s possibly justifiable in Trigger’s case, but nowhere else, really.

Because we’re all racists. We all attach prejudgments to people based on nationality, ethnicity, religion, age and sometimes race. It’s the kind of knee-jerk evaluation we make when we’re short of knowledge about people so that their appearance, their dress, their way of speaking leads to assumptions that may or may not have any merit. To do a racist thing, make a racist comment simply means that an assumption is being made based not on knowledge
 . . . but on a racial stereotype.

Adjectives modify (clarify, expand on) nouns, but when used to modify an action, we call them adverbs. Consider this: Donald Trump racistically decided to call African countries “s**tholes.” The racism attaches to the action, naming the quality of an incident or decision, not the person. And we all know that labels applied to people can be exceedingly harmful in general, life-destroying in some cases.

There are people who occasionally make racist remarks, occasionally engage in racist acts. I’m in that group, I think. There are also people who make a habit of applying racially based stereotypes, people like those KKK and white supremacist group members who literally believe that merit can be accurately deduced from skin colour, for instance. To label an individual KKK member as a racist, though, implies that this prejudice in him is his essential characteristic, and that would simply repeat his error.

People are never justly summed up in one word. Even Trigger is unjustly labeled as “simply a horse.” Ask Roy Rogers if you doubt this.

Dropping a racist remark doesn’t make me “just a racist.” It means that I haven’t finished my education yet and should probably wash my mouth out with soap, sit in the corner for a few hours with a grammar text and an encyclopedia.

And for those of us who believe we ought to do our bit to make the world better, we could begin by weighing our own words more carefully, by calling out racially-motivated actions in government, in business, in the social structures of our time. We need to learn and practice the difference between the adverbial and the adjectival use of our labels, for a start!

In the end, nothing worthwhile is accomplished by arriving at a consensus that Trump is or is not a racist, although people seem right now to be obsessed with this quest. His pseudo-presidency has included any number of acts that should long since have disqualified him as a leader, some to which an apparent racist motivation could certainly be applied. Would be nice if more of what the man does and says could be motivated by humility, by empathy, by courtesy.

One can always hope that sometime a light, an epiphany will break through. One can only hope.

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Bridling unruly horses

OH, Earth!!
So let’s get it straight before we succumb to the “free speech” mantra that’s pervading Trump’s America and social media like a virus. 

The meaning of “freedom” ought to evolve in us as we mature. To 10-year old Bobby, the concept of equivalency is still mixed up with notions of freedom and justice: if 16-year old Mike can stay up ‘til 10, then he should be allowed to stay up ‘til 10 too! To grow into adulthood without mastering ethical nuance . . . and then shouting out invective as a right based on equivalency, well, it's inexcusable. 

I recently chided someone on Facebook for re-posting a photo of a sign displayed by a service station owner in Spruce Grove, Alberta. On the large, lighted, elevated marquee, the owner had placed the words, “F**k NDP/Trudeau.” Along with the original post came a long list of crude, supporting replies—middle-finger trolls focused on “liberals” indiscriminately and defending the station owner's sign as a demonstration of free speech.

Equivalency. If you’re allowed to say publicly that you disagree with my viewpoint, then I’m allowed to put up a sign with your name that says, “Go f**k yourself!” And if I’m allowed to say it, what’s the difference among saying it to myself, to you, to coffee-row friends or to the whole world on a marquee?

Freedom to dress as one pleases in Canada doesn’t mean that it’s OK to prance through the mall naked. Freedom to own a gun doesn’t mean it’s OK to use it to settle arguments. The entire purpose of civil law is the prevention or redress of harm and/or unwarranted offense to persons; an adult who can’t yet see the difference among constructive, neutral and harm-producing speech is missing a key component of moral development, namely the ability to differentiate, that big step beyond the equivalency sensibility of childhood.

I know from personal experience that political leanings—the conservative/liberal spectrum and where our worldview lies on it—produces enormous temptation to commit verbal harm, to undermine, to denigrate, to hurl speech rocks at “the other side.” I admit that I have often rejoiced in the pain of those who are on the other side. I’ve also felt the tooth-grinding chagrin of loss when accompanied by jubilation in the camp of the competition.

Surviving those feelings without resorting to ad hominem barb-throwing is a struggle. Granted.1

But we’ve got to try. We need to call out in no uncertain terms those who can’t or won’t differentiate, who are becoming more and more addicted to the speech bomb. (It doesn’t help that the American president seems to be a master of destructive speech.) We’ve got to force ourselves to debate ideas and policies without reverting to ad hominem attack. We’ve got to revisit the gospel admonition that we’re called to love people, even those whom we consider enemies.

And the central component of loving is behavioral.

Bridling the tongue is like bridling an unruly horse; not easy . . . but necessary.
1: appealing to feelings or prejudices rather than intellect. An ad hominem argument: marked by or being an attack on an opponent's character rather than by an answer to the contentions made. (Merriam-Webster)

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Conservative with age?

Typical Newfoundland
“A person who’s not a socialist when he’s twenty doesn’t have a heart; a person who’s not a conservative when he’s forty doesn’t have a brain.” This old saying was bandied about on a recent “Ideas” episode on CBC focused on whether or not—and if so, why—we become more conservative with age. Presented was some documented evidence that showed we actually do become less liberal in our worldview as we get older and interviews with a few people who have demonstrably moved from a left-wing to a right-wing outlook supported the contention.

In general, the documentary’s informants left me with the impression that as young persons they were full of good will toward their fellows and were enthusiastic about supporting those less fortunate, but turned right when they realized that a socialist economy “just doesn’t work.” Author P.J. O’Rourke said he made his big right turn when he got his first job and his first pay check and realized that almost half of his total wage had been deducted for taxes, a consequence of a “communist” system. A general consensus among some interviewees was that liberalism is both ineffective in achieving its goals and that it curbs personal initiative, entrepreneurship and—worst of all—infringes individual freedoms.

Defining liberalism and conservatism in our time is a bit of a fool’s errand. Those of us who have an interest in and some involvement in politics in Canada likely consider ourselves to be either one or the other, but that does little more than divide us politically into camps, give us a sense of belonging. Truth is, our economy, our culture are not properly labeled using the liberal/conservative polarities; Western democracies are all mixed economies with both liberal and conservative elements.

I would have liked to ask those interviewees who saw themselves now as convinced conservatives which liberal—even socialist—parts of the Canadian economy they would like to eliminate: Univeral healthcare? Public highways? Public education? Crown corporations? Old Age Pension? The Canada Pension Plan? Public hospitals and nursing homes? All this could be thrown onto the back of individual entrepreneurship: toll highways; pay as you go healthcare; family, at-home care for the aged and infirm; corporate ownership of airports; for-profit schools, jails and universities; etc.

O’Rourke referred to a quote from philosopher Michael Oakshott that he considers to be a perfect definition of conservatism: “To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.” O’Rourke goes on to say that the movement from a liberal to a conservative outlook is inevitable, that liberalism is an attribute of youth and that we eventually “have to grow up.”

Other interviewees saw O’Rourke’s comments as silly . . . na├»ve, as did I, beyond belief for someone as renowned as he has come to be. I've known many a gray-haired person with an abiding social conscience. A failure to maintain youthful idealism doesn't equate to "brainlessness."

A young woman interviewee described herself as a liberal/socialist and defined her worldview as “an unconditional commitment to social justice.” I believe she said she was the founder of "Black Lives Matter - Toronto."

I’d recommend taking an hour to listen to the podcast by clicking HERE. I found the ending particularly helpful; in other words, give it the whole hour!

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Jerusalem: THE place, or A place.

A place, planet earth (not Jerusalem)

A different place, planet earth (not Jerusalem either)

Yet another place, planet earth (still not Jerusalem)
Netanyahu was positively gleeful as he thanked Donald Trump for American recognition of Jerusalem as the capital city of Israel.

His demeanour didn’t match that of most world leaders responding to the event; the fear of hostilities and armed clashes, potentially unleashed by Trump’s declaration, was palpable.

Three monotheistic religions—Muslim, Jewish and Christian—claim substantial stakes in the “holy site” status of Jerusalem. I’m not historian enough to weigh the legitimacy of these claims, except that Christian interest in being involved in the fate of Jerusalem as a “holy site” is baffling. It’s clear that through selective reading of the gospels and dispensationalist, pre- or post-millenialist explanations of the end-of-times, Jerusalem can figure in the apocalyptic formulations of people who call themselves Christian. 

But Christian faith was clearly meant by the prophetic voice that gives it its name to shift faith away from tribalism and the idolatrous worship of place. The classic conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, for instance, (John 4: 19-24, NIV) can’t be easily ignored:

“Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”

“Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. [. . .] Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”

Perhaps a reverence for—even worship of—a place is inevitable given human nature. When good things happen to us, a fondness develops for the place in which we were at the time. For indigenous Canadians, cultural roots are not recorded on paper but in the memories partially residing in sacred places. There is Heimweh, homesickness that can colour our worldview, cause us to long for places lost but not forgotten. And then there’s the romance of place: Old Montreal, Paris, The Big Apple, Grand Canyon that possess an aura well beyond the stones and soil of which they’re made.

And yet, can nostalgia ever be a defensible foundation for taking up arms? I tend to see our dilemma evolutionarily: our capability to wage destructive war has surpassed by far our social progress, so Jerusalem becomes occasion for quarreling and war, not for glorious, multicultural celebration.

Perhaps Islam or Judaism are dependent on Jerusalem being a more sacred place than Budapest or London or Rio de Janeiro. Logically, if there is but one God, and if his name is Yahweh, and if there is but one God, and if his name is Allah, then Yahweh and Allah are names for the same God and I have to wonder how he/she sees the shenanigans into which Donald Trump has now inserted his blunt instrument!

As Christians, though, who worship God “neither on this (Samaritan) mountain nor in Jerusalem,” we might do well to take our mandate from Christ himself to foster reconciliation and to stop finding excuses to participate as partisans in the Muslim/Jewish nonsense that since 1949 has focused on Palestine/Israel, and now on the Temple Mount and the Wailing Wall, a politics of futility.

2 Corinthians 5:17-19 (NIV)

  1. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!
  2. All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation:
  3. that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. (emphasis mine)